Jimmy Johnstone, ‘Jinky’ to everyone, the man voted the greatest Celtic player ever, has died at the age of 62 after a long illness. A supremely talented ball player with mesmeric close control, he was an integral part of the Lisbon Lions, the home-grown Celtic team which was the first British side to win the European Cup in 1967. Some good judges, including the Real Madrid legend Alfredo di Stefano, rate him even more highly than the late George Best as the greatest player never to grace a World Cup. By the time Scotland qualified for the first of a series of five successive World Cup final tournaments in 1974, Johnstone’s genius was probably in decline, despite a brilliant performance against Wales in a lead-up match. His last cap came in 1975 and he won four in 1974, and though he made it into Willie Ormond’s squad for West Germany, he did not kick a ball in a match in the tournament, unlike another talismanic hero, Denis Law, who played in the opening game against Zaire.
Johnstone made 515 appearances for Celtic, scoring 130 goals, but was capped only 23 times by his country. Johnstone’s relatively small number of Scottish caps cannot be explained simply by his mercurial temperament and lack of disciplined application, for he had to share the international limelight for much of his career with an almost equally talented and diminutive Rangers winger, Willie Henderson, as well as several high quality, though more conventional, attackers. Johnstone did lack confidence in the Scotland dressing room, was often abused as a catholic by the fans of Glasgow Rangers under the Scotland flag, and was victimised by one Scotland trainer. One of his Scotland managers, the ebullient Tommy Docherty, once said, ‘I remember calling off our first practice match because no one could get the ball off wee Jimmy Johnstone.’
Like another famous striker Dennis Bergkamp, Johnstone hated flying. His manager Jock Stein, who said that his greatest feat was keeping Jimmy in the game for as long as he was, played on this by offering the dynamic winger a chance to stay at home when the team flew to Belgrade for the away leg of a European Cup tie in 1968 against Red Star, provided the home leg was won by four goals. Johnstone applied himself that night, and when the fourth goal went in, team-mates and fans alike were taken aback by the extraordinary fervour of his celebrations as he cavorted around the park shouting, ‘I don’t have to go, I don’t have to go.’
Then there was the infamous incident at a Scottish training camp at Largs on the Ayrshire coast, following that dazzling display by the wee winger against Wales in 1974, when after a few refreshments Johnstone found himself in a rowing boat with only one oar drifting out into the Firth of Clyde. Colleagues thought it was all a great joke as the non-swimmer became a speck on the horizon, but then the authorities had to be alerted before he succumbed to hypothermia. Jock Stein’s summary was, ‘He is not a bad boy with regard to being against authority. It is just that if there is trouble, or a problem, Jimmy seems to be in the thick of it.’
Jack Webster, who ghosted Johnstone’s autobiography, testifies to his unexampled skill and his football nous, combined with an unworldliness off the field. Going to his house for an arranged interview for the book, Webster would be greeted by Johnstone’s wife with the news, ‘Jimmy’s no here’. On one occasion Webster found him playing with about a hundred kids, most as tall as the little winger, on a patch of waste ground not far from the house. Thinking to test his own, not inconsiderable, defensive skills against ‘Wee Jinky’, Webster invited the Celtic man to bring the ball up to him and beat him. Johnstone agreed and brought the ball so close to Webster that the latter was certain he had his measure. No sooner had the thought been conceived than the wee man had dropped a shoulder, rolled his foot under the ball and lightly lifted it over Webster’s lunging toes, and skipped away in total control.
For a number of years after his playing career was over Johnstone suffered a debilitating illness which eventually claimed his life. But he was loved by all who came in contact with his infectious enthusiasm for life and football. In 2005 he had a Fabergé egg made in his honour, the first living person to whom this has happened since the days of the Romanovs. In Sue Mott’s A girl’s guide to ball games one of her respondents to a poll on the greatest sports stars of all time, describes Eric Cantona as ‘nearly as good as Jimmy Johnstone’. Another mercurial icon, Jim Baxter of Rangers, who played with and against him said, ‘What he did to poor Terry Cooper in the semi-final of the European Cup against Leeds in 1970 should have been prohibited by Act of Parliament.’ In my mind’s eye I can still see Jinky with the ball tied to his feet making a mockery of the defensive talents of some of the world’s greatest players in front of the fans in the ‘Jungle’ at Parkhead, where his greatest moments of pure football skill were performed.
(A very sensitively edited version of this obituary appeared in The Celt, no. 103, May 2006, pp. 9-13, thanks to Eugene MacBride. Copies of this long running and superb fanzine/social history/literary magaziner/critical homage can be obtained from E A MacBride, Celt House, 31 Harrowby Lane, Grantham NG31 9HY, Lincolnshire, UK. Subscribe to the best read on all things relating to Celtic. £5 per four issues.)